indexFor a long time I avoided writing about Mexico on this site because once I got started I knew I wouldn’t be able to stop.

Think of this. In 1893 a 15 year-old Swedish youth, with only 4 years of elementary school behind him, leaves home and spends three years as a sailor in the merchant marine. Next we find he is a cavalry officer in the British army in South Africa, fighting in the Boer war, then in a Zulu rebellion.

After stints in Kenya and India, he appears with the Phillippine Constabulary (“US Foreign Legion” a Wikipedia note adds) in the Spanish-American war. Then he is in China confronting the aftershocks of the 1900 Boxer rebellion. There, in a restaurant one day, an American reporter tells him about the  cavalry feats of Pancho Villa in Mexico that were gaining newspaper attention. Thord-Gray says to himself, “I have to meet this man.”

So he shows up in Mexico where he meets Villa in a memorable scene where Villa tears up his Mexican visa (obtained in Texas) and says scornfully, “Get out of here, I don’t need another American spy.”

In fact,Thord-Gray was a spy, sending reports to the American and British armies.

But he persuaded Villa to change his mind, which is a good story in itself. Made a captain, he joined Villa’s army. Almost as soon as he joined, during an all-night march to a battle they would fight next day, Ivor became friends with Pedro, a Tarahumaran shaman serving in the unit he was now commanding.

When he was transferred to the army of General Obregon shortly after, he took Pedro with him. Then they met Tekwe, a Yaqui warrior volunteer, and this became an unusual ‘three musketeers’ story, with adventure after adventure as they fought their way south to depose the government in Mexico City.

Once dictator Porfirio Diaz was defeated and Mexico City occupied, Thord-Gray received a call from the British army to join them in the struggle of World War I and he left for Europe.

Towards the end of that war, he joined the allied expeditionary force sent to Russia to aid the White Russians in their attempt to put down the Bolsheviks (according to Wikipedia, whose page for Thord-Gray has been growing, he was with the ‘Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force’). Captured, he spent time in a Russian prison. Then, released, he continued on in his world odyssey. Wikipedia claims he participated in 13 wars.

Finally, tired of it all, Thord-Gray returned home to Sweden and began to write his story. But what was it that he wanted to write about? At first at least, it was only about Mexico.

One afternoon in 2003 I was browsing in a used book store in Mexico City when I found El Sueco que se fue con Pancho Villa ( The Swede who joined Pancho Villa) a history of this man by Mexican lawyer/historian Adolpho Arrioja Vizcaino. I bought the book and began to read about Ivor Thord-Gray. Maybe I should add that he was born ‘Thord Ivar Hallstrom’. I’ve yet to see the reason for the change.

While many people would be surprised that Thord-Gray only wanted to write about Mexico, I understood that immediately. In 1968-’69 I entered the country through El Paso/ Juarez, the same place where Thord-Gray crossed the border, and I travelled north to south, and east to west through that country, stopping for a while to work in Mexico City.

I was there for the same length of time that Thord-Gray was there, about a year. Ever since then, I too have been haunted by the country. Like him, I would return to it again and again, especially in my dreams.

I don’t think Arrioja Vizcaino’s book has ever been published in English, but that’s no barrier if you want to read about Thord-Gray, for he wrote his own account of his time in Mexico – Gringo Rebel – which you can find on Amazon. That book is filled with his accounts of those adventures.

For example, at one point while on a reconnaisance patrol, the three of them are cut off by Federal soldiers and their Indian allies and pursued into the mountains. At one point they have to jump across a gap, with an abyss directly below. Thord-Gray is suffering from an attack of the malaria he acquired in Africa. Too weak to make the jump, he tells them to leave him behind, but they say they will stay and die with him if he won’t jump. Pedro administers a dose of Tarahumaran medicine, then urges him again to get up and try. It is an unforgettable scene, followed by a couple of weeks recovering in a Tarahumaran village, where Thord-Gray began to write the first Tarahumaran-English dictionary to be published.

On another occasion, when Thord-Gray, now a colonel, is sent to meet with a leader of the army of famous general Emiliano Zapata, he tells how a peasant under a big sombrero sat silently in a corner of room, occasionally giving a slight nod or a shake of his head to the Zapata negotiator. Thord-Gray came away convinced that he had just encountered Zapata himself.

By the way, are you wondering that a Swedish man considered himself to be a ‘gringo’? Drinking beer one afternoon on a patio on the Mexico/Guatemala border with a Mexican friend, I suggested to him that I was not a gringo, since I was a Canadian, not a citizen of the USA. He studied me for a moment, then said, “No Alan, you’re a gringo.”

Yes, read Gringo Rebel and you’ll find more of the magic of Mexico that I’m trying to convey in some of these posts. The final scene where Thord-Gray is standing at the back of the last car on the train taking him to Vera Cruz and Europe, to the battlefields of WW I, looking back at Pedro and Tekwe standing on the tracks together, receding into the distance, belongs in the movie that has never been made about those three men.

3 thoughts on “Rescuing Loners | Ivor Thord-Gray and the Mexican Revolution

  1. Wow, this post has a number of elements that fascinate me (Mexico- I’m learning Spanish), Sweden (I’m a Swedophile and speak Swedish), and military history (I have military experience). Thord was quite a man.


    1. Mexico has so many dazzling facets to it that it feels like a paranormal land in the midst of all the others – and Thord-Gray really is something – there is a photo, on the internet somewhere, of him in middle age with a bow and arrow in his hand, having accepted a challenge to prove that a Tarahumaran [or maybe Yaqui} bow can outperform a rifle. I think it was in the USA where he lived much of his later life and I believe he claimed to have won.

      So Berting is a Swedish surname? I may have asked you that once before.

      Liked by 1 person

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